All Things Considered – May 2014
By Jim KnisleyFeatures Nutrition and Feed Research Poultry Research Research
Answering the Fundamental Question
Back in February the Agricultural Institute of Canada (AIC), commenting on the federal science and technology policy, applauded “the Harper government’s significant investments in science, technology and innovation.”
But, in a very gentle way, AIC Director of Communications, Daniel Kosick, pointed to a shortcoming. “It is important to remember that public support for basic research focusing on long-term advances is also needed,” he said in a release.
Basic research tends to be a tough sell, especially to self-identified “practical people”, which includes many, if not most, businessmen and politicians. They look for concrete developments or advances. The theoretical stuff leaves them cold.
It doesn’t help that those doing basic research can’t point to something concrete that might come from their work. But that isn’t their purpose. They are working to expand knowledge and it’s up to the rest of us to build on that.
An example of this is James Clerk Maxwell’s equations. These are the foundation of modern electrical and communications technologies. The computer this is being written on, the internet that provided some of the research material, the fancy new light bulb above my head, and even the poultry industry’s new high tech barns rest on the basic research carried out by Maxwell 150 years ago.
If you are getting lost less often than you used to it’s thanks to Albert Einstein. His theory of relativity allows GPS to work. Einstein also provided one of the most profound arguments for basic science. Without basic science, he said, there would be little or no applied science. Without applied science there would be little or no economic or social progress. My take on all of this is that if we don’t provide for the extremely smart people who think for a living the best we can hope for is stagnation. The worst is a repeat of the Dark Ages when centuries of progress was flushed away by superstition and individual aggrandizement in the form of castle building.
But Einstein can speak for himself. In a speech delivered in 1918 to the Physical Society in Berlin, he said many take to science “for purely utilitarian purposes” while others do it to show off their intellect. He continued that if these two groups were all there, there would be no science. It would be like trying to grow a forest with nothing but creepers.
Speaking of his own field of physics and the attempts to discern the general laws that govern everything, “There is no logical path to these laws.” It takes intuition, intense study and reflection, analysis of what is known (or thought to be known) and time.
Einstein knew the value of time. In his 1914 inaugural speech to the Prussian Academy of Sciences he thanked them “for conferring the greatest benefit on me that anybody can confer on a man like myself. By electing me to your academy you have freed me from the distractions and cares of a professional life and so made it possible for me to devote myself entirely to scientific studies. I beg that you will continue to believe in my gratitude and my industry even when my efforts seem to you to yield but a poor result.”
Many today say they believe in science and recognize the need to support it. But the reality differs from the words, especially in this country. The question is “How is Canada doing?” The most recent OECD figures (which date from 2010) are not encouraging.
The size of the research system as a percentage of GDP ranks behind Australia, Austria, Belgium, China, Denmark, France, Germany, the U.S. and numerous others. Canada is one of three OECD countries where the annual growth rate of GERD (Gross Domestic Expenditure on Research and Development) was declining. Canada was in the middle of the pack in the amount of GERD that is publically financed as a percentage of GDP. And it lags most other countries in terms of the growth rate of publically financed GERD.
These figures from the OECD’s stat extracts are, to put it mildly, embarrassing. They reflect a “penny wise pound foolish” mindset, or perhaps a nation that knows the cost of everything, but the value of nothing.
It is past time that we started focussing on the value of science rather than just looking at the cost and sacrificing the future for a few pennies of tax breaks today.
We need people who ask the fundamental questions and seek the answers. We need people who think for a living.
If you don’t believe it, argue with Albert Einstein.
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